Judging from what Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica told me in an extended interview last week, there is a real possibility that people in his country will soon be able to buy marijuana legally from a state-regulated company that will be in charge of marketing and selling the drug.
Mujica, 78, earlier this month submitted a bill to congress that may be the boldest marijuana legalization proposal anywhere in the world. It calls for the state to “take over the control and regulation of activities related to the importation, production, acquisition, storage, marketing and distribution of marijuana.”
This would go way beyond what countries such as the Netherlands and Portugal have done in recent decades to in effect decriminalize marijuana use. It also dwarfs recent proposals by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina — and milder versions by the leaders of Colombia and Mexico — to start an open debate over legalization of drugs.
Are you proposing that the state start selling marijuana? I asked Mujica.
“It’s a little bit more profound than that,” he answered. “The idea is to take away the market from drug traffickers.”
Mujica explained that, nowadays, drug traffickers who sell marijuana in Uruguay often induce young people to consume heavier drugs, such as cocaine paste. That has caused, among other things, a major rise in violent crime in the country.
“We prefer that this market of bland drugs no longer be used as a gateway for the sale of the so-called hard-drugs,” Mujica said.
By regulating Uruguay’s estimated $40 million-a-year marijuana business, the state will take it away from drug traffickers, and weaken the drug cartels, he said. In addition, the state would be able to keep track of all marijuana consumers in the country, and provide treatment to the most serious abusers, much like is being done today with alcoholics, he said.
Asked whether under his proposal people would buy marijuana in street cafes or kiosks, Mujica said it will be up to the Uruguayan congress to decide that. He added that his bill has a “50-50 chance of passing,” but that he is hopeful that a public discussion of it will lead to some variation of it being approved soon.
What about the criticism that a state-run marijuana company would become an inefficient bureaucracy, with high chances of becoming corrupted by the drug trade? I asked.
Mujica, who until now has refused to reveal whether he supports a state or private firm to run the proposed marijuana enterprise, said that “a private company will sell it” under strict government control, much like what happens today with alcohol sales. In other words, the state would hire a private firm to manage the business.
And what about the argument that if this law passes, Uruguay will become a marijuana tourism destination? I asked.
“This will be a mechanism for Uruguayans, who will be registered, and who will have a monthly ration” of the drug, he said, adding that foreigners will not qualify to buy marijuana.
Wouldn’t lower marijuana prices lead to an increase in consumption, much like happened with alcohol at the end of the U.S. prohibition era in the 1930s? I asked. Mujica responded that it’s a risk worth taking.
When the United States lifted its ban on alcohol, “people at first drank a little bit more, but the fact is that life went on in the United States, and today it’s a pretty prosperous nation, isn’t it?” he said.
“What we can’t afford doing is continuing to play the fools, to look the other way” while consumption of harder drugs and drug-related violence continues, Mujica concluded. “We must try other weapons.”
My opinion: When I first read Mujica’s proposal to have the state “take over” control of marijuana sales, my first reaction was to fear that Uruguay will create one more inept, state-run bureaucracy filled with government cronies, who will probably end up smoking up the company’s income or — worse — selling harder drugs on the side.
But if Mujica’s plan is to subcontract a reputable private firm to run the business under state regulations — much like is done with scotch or beer companies —, as he said in the interview, the idea may not be that crazy. Its income may help fund education, prevention and treatment programs for harder drugs.
What’s clear is that the four-decade-old U.S.-backed war on drugs is not working, and that it’s producing tens of thousands of dead across the hemisphere, without significant gains in reducing consumption. Experimenting with new weapons to weaken the cartels may be better than doing nothing.